The Community Sustainability Team at Communities Unlimited is actively supporting the residents of Lewisville, Arkansas in their pursuit of a vibrant community. Despite common negative perceptions about rural areas, we believe in opportunity. We firmly believe community-led engagement is what leads to prosperity. Lewisville is eagerly embracing opportunities for growth and improvement. Through community-led engagement, they are tackling challenges together and envisioning a future with a high quality of life.

With guidance from the Community Sustainability team, residents are organizing town hall meetings and forming committees to address shared obstacles. They are strategically planning to leverage existing assets and opportunities, rather than dwelling on limitations. While visible signs of progress, like new businesses and infrastructure improvements, often grab attention, these achievements are the result of months of planning and hard work behind the scenes.

In a three-part series, we aim to bring the unnoticed efforts of the Lewisville community into focus. We will tell their story as it unfolds, capturing their journey from where they are now to where they aspire to be. This series will showcase the power of community-led initiatives, honoring Lewisville’s past while shaping its future.

Read Part 2

Lewisville's Present

A Mayor's Mission To Restore Prosperity

Ethan Dunbar, a native of Lewisville, Arkansas, left town upon graduating from high school to join the military. During his time in the service, he became accustomed to the amenities and sense of community provided on military installations.

Whenever Dunbar returned home to visit his parents, he noticed the gradual decline of Lewisville. The town, once vibrant, had begun to struggle to provide basic services and maintain a high quality of life for its residents.

This decline was reflected in the population figures, which showed a significant drop from 1,653 in the 1970s to just 915 as of the 2020 census. Feeling a sense of duty to his hometown, Dunbar decided to return home permanently in 2016. Two years later, he was elected mayor, succeeding the previous mayor who retired.

Mayor Ethan Dunbar’s military experience and his observations of successful community management on military bases motivated him to work towards revitalizing Lewisville and improving the lives of its residents.
Mayor Ethan Dunbar’s military experience and his observations of successful community management on military bases motivated him to work towards revitalizing Lewisville and improving the lives of its residents.

“I came back home on purpose,” Dunbar said. “We lived better in Iraq and Afghanistan than some of the people who live here and that bothered me. It’s like this is crazy. So that’s what led me to get involved as mayor. When you see the need and you see it bare, you’ve got a heart, you’ve got a servant’s heart, you’ve got compassion, you’ve got to do something. Lewisville is a town that is on life support.”

Rising Gas Prices Decimating Local Economy

Longtime residents of Lewisville would readily attest that the city wasn’t always characterized by pervasive poverty.
Lewisville, located in southwestern Lafayette County, boasts a storied heritage dating back to its establishment in 1836. Positioned along U.S. Hwy 82 between Texarkana and Magnolia, Arkansas, the town sees a bustling traffic flow of over 8,000 vehicles daily, as per records from the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

Lewisville is positioned above the vast Smackover Oil Formation, renowned as one of the nation’s largest oilfields. Historically, the town’s economy thrived on the oil industry, employing a significant portion of its population. However, with the onset of rising gasoline prices, peaking at $4 per gallon, during the late 1990s, companies began shuttering their operations, prompting a shift in the industry towards Texas.

Subsequently, this economic transition led to an exodus of both residents and businesses seeking greener pastures elsewhere. In the summer of 2003, Lewisville’s educational landscape shifted as its high school merged with nearby Stamps to establish Lafayette County High School. Lewisville is left with only one elementary school in town.

Jana Crank owns Spruce Street Gallery and has been a resident of Lewisville for 58 years.
Jana Crank owns Spruce Street Gallery and has been a resident of Lewisville for 58 years.

“Once gas hit $4 a gallon, everything shut down,” said Jana Crank, owner of Spruce Street Art Gallery in Lewisville. “The population dwindled. Some of the people who were community-oriented, their kids didn’t have jobs to come back to here. They moved to where their kids were. We lost the population. Stores closed. It became like a little antique town.”

After relying on its antique charm for some time, Lewisville faced a downturn when its antique stores began to struggle and eventually closed, leading to a decline in activity. By March 2024, only two businesses remained operational downtown: a pawn shop and a sporting goods retail store, both owned by Jill Hubbard. However, both establishments closed on April 10, resulting in the complete absence of businesses downtown.

A short distance from downtown, locals can find Burge’s, a beloved community spot on the corner of Hwy 29 and Hwy 82. Serving up barbecue, burgers, and ice cream, Burge’s has been a fixture in the area since 1962.

Lewisville boasts several convenience stores and a Dollar General for everyday essentials. Notably, the town is also home to the Old Jail Log Cabin, constructed in 1830, making it one of the oldest jailhouses in Arkansas.

There is a palpable interest within the community to rejuvenate the downtown area.

Dunbar highlighted the city’s growth potential, noting the courthouse’s presence and downtown traffic. He’s optimistic that recent additions, such as the new Jhony Tacos Food Truck, could ignite revitalization efforts and foster community pride. Despite challenges, he stressed the importance of shifting from complacency toward poverty to a mindset centered on progress and enhancement.

“We need to inspire some hope that you can do better,” Dunbar said. “There’s a better quality of life for you right here in Lewisville with some effort and being able to inspire people to get involved in that effort has been a challenge because everybody can agree that, yeah, we suck. Everybody agrees, but the hard part is how do we stop sucking? How do we get off life support and start to thrive? The first thing for me is reversing that decline. We were on that steady decline. Now we must at least stabilize it. Let’s get stable first.”

Getting Up the Mountain

Deanna O’Malley, a Community Facilitator on CU’s Community Sustainability (CS) team, has a deep-rooted connection with the town of Lewisville. With two years of experience as a CU staff member, coupled with four years working at Lewisville in a previous role at the Arkansas Department of Health, she brings extensive knowledge and understanding of the community’s dynamics.

O’Malley and Dunbar first connected several years ago, coinciding with Dunbar’s retirement from the Army and subsequent return to his hometown as mayor. Around the same time, county health rankings revealed Lewisville’s position as 75 out of 75 in negative health factors.

The county health rankings consider various factors such as underage drinking, overall alcohol consumption, high pregnancy rates, diabetes, and cancer rates. Lewisville’s position in these rankings deeply resonated with O’Malley, prompting her to take action.

O’Malley and Dunbar quickly formed a strong friendship. Their initial efforts focused on raising awareness about the risks of high cholesterol and shifting the community’s focus from a high rate of pregnancies to reducing them.

Educational initiatives became a significant focus for O’Malley during her early involvement with Lewisville. Seven years later, the town’s health rankings have improved to a more moderate level, showcasing O’Malley’s ongoing efforts to promote the community of Lewisville in her current position at CU.

CU Community Facilitator Deanna O'Malley has a shared vision with the residents of Lewisville for a prosperous and thriving community
CU Community Facilitator Deanna O'Malley has a shared vision with the residents of Lewisville for a prosperous and thriving community

“The small things help a community prosper,” O’Malley said. “They know their struggles are real, and their struggles are big. Downtown revitalization is near and dear to a lot of their hearts for different reasons. You have local business owners who want to see great things happen to their community. The more wins they have in their community the more tourism. The more tourism means more tax dollars. They can see over the mountain. It’s a matter of getting up the mountain and helping them find out what they need to do.”

With a military background, Dunbar emphasized his training to start with the end goal in mind and work backward. This approach involves establishing a strategic plan and systematically implementing it, which is precisely what they are doing in Lewisville.

The city and its community have engaged in strategic planning following recent announcements from ExxonMobil and other companies about their intentions to start lithium production in the region by 2027. These companies have initiated test sites on the expansive Smackover formation, which spans three states and holds the potential to supply 15% of the world’s lithium.

The developments have sparked cautious optimism among Lewisville residents about the future. After serving five years in office, Dunbar is pleased to have a renewed community effort aimed at revitalizing the town, which was once a thriving hub.

“Now they see all the things that are wrong with Lewisville, and they want to say, how can we fix it?” Dunbar said. “A lot of people want to hear about lithium, but to get to lithium, how do we position ourselves? We need to hear their thoughts so we can then get a list of them prioritized and start working on that long-range vision.”

O’Malley said she is consistently optimistic and maintains a positive outlook on the city of Lewisville. She believes that despite facing various challenges, the community’s determination and resilience will propel them forward. She pledges to continue supporting the city’s progress and is committed to assisting however necessary to ensure they are on a path to prosperity.

“It’s safe to say we’re ground level with a lot of projects,” O’Malley said. “But the one thing I’m certain of and sure of is that what they lack in resources, they make up in heart. There are a lot of financial obstacles. To do something with one of the buildings, you’ve got to have capital. For somebody to invest in a building, we’re going to have to have some other things in the community that need to be worked on and to give those investors a reason to come and invest.

“However, at Communities Unlimited, we have been trained and challenged not to accept no for an answer. So that’s what we’re going to continue to do. As long as the city is willing to keep putting one foot in front of the other, I’m here to hold an umbrella or pull them along, put them in a wagon, whatever we need. We’re going to keep going.”

Dunbar’s sales pitch is straightforward.

“Invest in Lewisville now,” Dunbar said. “Where we are now, we won’t be in five years. If you don’t get in now, you’ll miss out because we have a rich history. People from here know that at one point this was a thriving community, and they would like to see it thrive again.”